(North Wilts Herald, 16th September 1898)


The Salisbury Plain Manoeuvres – how the troops were removed.  Interview with Mr S. Fay


            If the military manoeuvres of 1898 yielded no other good result – and no-one is likely to question the value of the experience gained by the troops during the two or three weeks of arduous training on Salisbury Plain – they proved of almost incalculable utility as showing what can be done in the way of the rapid deportation of armed men. 


            Confronted though they were by enormous difficulties, the officials of the M&SWJR Company grappled with the Herculean task of despatching nearly 30,000 soldiers from the training ground to different parts of the Kingdom with an energy and resolution which must command the highest admiration, and they can lay the flattering unction to their souls that their share of the work – whatever shortcomings there may have been in other quarters – left no loophole for fault-finding or complaint.  The fact that over pretty well the whole of the system the trains had to be run on a single line was perhaps the greatest obstacle to be faced, but perfect organisation overcame even this difficulty, and the arrangements from first to last worked with machine-like smoothness.  Success was of course not achieved without the exercise of much trouble and foresight, and the zealous General Manager (Mr Sam Fay) and his staff may justly pride themselves on the outcome of their labours.  At all times a busy man, Mr. Fay has just now more than usually heavy responsibilities thrown on his shoulders; and a Herald representative in search of information considered himself fortunate in being able to share a compartment with the G.M. during a journey from Ludgershall to Swindon on Monday evening.


            “Your time has been pretty fully employed recently, Mr. Fay” was the reporter’s first question.


            “Yes.  We have had it very warm the last four days, but I am glad to say we have nearly finished, as far as the removal of the troops themselves is concerned.  There is, however, a good deal to do yet.  We have been commissioned to remove 600 tones of goods from Bulford, as well as the clearing-out of the camps at Perham Down and Durrington: and we have just received orders to supply 30 trucks a day for the next fortnight.”


            “Have all the troops left?”


            “There are 4 trainloads to be despatched tomorrow, and that will be the last of them”


            “How many trains in all?”


            “Tomorrow’s 4 will bring the total up to 63.  Between 9.15 on Thursday night and the last thing on Friday night 46 were sent away; on Saturday there were 12 more; on Sunday, one; and on Tuesday, as I have said, there will be four.  These of course do not include special goods and horse-box trains.”


            “And what number of men do you calculate you have dealt with?”


            “26,000 officers and men, 1,483 horses, 51 military wagons, and 5 batteries of artillery.  One train, I may mention, was devoted to the Balloon Section of the R.E., and another – a big train, too – to the No.6 Ammunition column.”


            “These represented a very large proportion of the whole of the troops engaged in the manoeuvres?”


            “Considerably more than half.  Apart from the 26,000 men whom we despatched, a number of the Regiments marched by road to Aldershot and elsewhere.  The MSWR supplied 50 trains.  I might point out here,” continued Mr Fay, “that he sending of artillery and cavalry by train is an almost entirely new feature - due to the reduction in rates on the lines of the different railway companies.”


            “And now tell me something as to the arrangements for entraining the troops.”


            “This is what we issued to the members of the staff” – and Mr Fay handed me a 7-page programme containing in the minutest details instructions for the working of the line during the period occupied in the removal of the troops.


            “Your chief difficulty was in having to work on a single line, Mr Fay?”


            “Yes.” responded the G.M. “No such task had ever been attempted in England.  The War Office people” with a smile “were rather funky, because they thought we were going to make a mess of it, and I fancy the other railway companies shared that opinion.  We have shown them, however – “and the smile broadened “what we can do.”


            “And what have the Military Authorities had to say?”


            “The staff officers, both at Ludgershall and Weyhill, have been very complimentary.  We deal with them entirely as intermediaries between the regimental commanders and ourselves.”


            “To return to the station arrangements.”


            “In the first place I might tell you that placed end to end the trains would have covered a distance of ten miles.  At Ludgershall, a temporary platform 1,000 yards long had been constructed and this was divided up into four loading berths.  Each berth was in charge of an Inspector, with 6 men under him to assist in the loading, and I can tell you these fellows had to stick at it.  The berths were respectively under the supervision of Inspector Wicks, Inspector Bush, Mr Beale, and Mr Alford; and Mr Lawrence acted between these officials and the staff officers.  Every man knew what he had to do, and the whole thing went like clockwork.  Chief-Inspector Clow, who has had 15 or 16 years experience on the midland, was in charge of the whole arrangements at Ludgershall: and Inspectors Knight and Norris were in command at Weyhill.  One of the greatest difficulties was the working of our empties from Savernake, more particularly during the night.  With a gradient of 1 in 100 you may imagine it was no easy matter to move the coaches, and I myself was fully occupied during Thursday, Friday and Friday night in superintending matters at this point.  By means of telephone and telegraph I was able to keep in touch at both ends.  At Weyhill we improved the ordinary landing accommodation, and there we entrained nearly all the artillery and cavalry.  Ludgershall was devoted to the infantry, each regiment of which had a Maxim gun.  In order to facilitate matters, telephone communication was established between Ludgershall and Weyhill and Andover on the one side and Marlborough on the other.  Another great advantage was the electric light at Ludgershall.  This proved of enormous benefit, for we could work as easily by night as by day.  Without the electric light, night work would have been positively dangerous.”


            I interrupted Mr Fay to remark on the value of the new Marlborough & Grafton line in connection with the operations.


            “We could not have done the work without it.” was the reply.  “Apart from the difficulties we should have had to encounter in working over the old line, the new line proved of immense advantage to us in the marshalling and berthing of empty trains.  From 6 a.m. on Sunday, the 4th, until noon last Saturday, the down line was closed between Marlborough and Savernake, and was used for the reception of empty trains.  From Thursday evening until Saturday, the exigencies of the troop traffic necessitated our doing away with the ordinary signals between Collingbourne and Ludgershall, while the whole of the signals were suspended between Ludgershall and Weyhill.  In their place we adopted ground signalling, men being stationed in sight of each other with flags during the day and lamps at night.  They had to stick at their posts, but we did not forget their bodily needs, and they were kept supplied with refreshment.  That reminds me that we fed practically the whole of our men while they were on duty, and also provided them with sleeping accommodation as far as we were able.”


            “As is pretty well known, you had to suspend the whole of your ordinary traffic on Friday?” hinted the interviewer.


            “Yes,” was the answer in a tone of regret “that was an unfortunate necessity.  I don’t think however, that any great inconvenience was caused except to the farmers who send milk to London in the afternoon.  We put on a special milk train in the morning, but were unable to do it in the evening.  If we could have avoided this course we should have been only too pleased, but the single-line difficulty was too great for us.”


            “What about your arrangements with the other companies?”


            The arrangement was that the railway company on whose system was the destination of a particular troop should supply the stock, and in pursuance of this agreement we had carriages from the LSW, LNW, Midland, Great Western, Great Northern, North British, Caledonian, Furness, Cambrian, LCDR, South Eastern and Great Eastern.”


            “Your staff was necessarily augmented.”


            “Oh yes.  In addition to engaging supernumeraries, we brought up men from the other end of the line.  The South Western found guards for trains going over their system and the Great Western lent us six engines with drivers and firemen.  These came 10 days beforehand to learn the route, signals etc.  The G.W. people behaved wonderfully well towards us, and Mr Dean told us we could have what engines we wanted.”          


            “And all the arrangements worked satisfactorily?”


            “Yes, I am happy to say we didn’t have a single breakdown.  It was a great piece of luck.”


            “Not luck alone?” suggested the Herald man.


            “Well,” was the modest rejoinder, “we put all our forces together and did our best.


            “I suppose,” queried the reporter, “the despatching business was not devoid of incident?”


            “We had,” replied Mr Fay, “some trouble with some of the horses.  After trying for ¾-hour to get one on the train the men had to give it up as a bad job, and he was sent on by road.  Another got between two cattle trucks, and we had to part the train to get him out.  A third got “mixed up” in the wire fencing, which had to be cut to pieces before the animal could be liberated.  One of the most amusing incidents, however, befell one of our men.  He was so dead beat on Friday night that he lay down by a siding and went to sleep.  When he awoke he discovered that a kind friend had removed his boots, and he hasn’t found them since.”


            Mr Fay was loud in his praises of the loyalty and devotion of the company’s staff.  “They worked splendidly,” he observed, “and I was really surprised that some of them lasted so well, particularly the young hands.  The Inspectors and other officials, including the station-masters, coped with their arduous duties in a manner deserving high admiration, and they deserve the thanks of everybody interested.”  It is left to the writer to again pay a tribute to the untiring energy displayed by the G.M. himself.


            Before we parted, Mr Fay mentioned that before the next manoeuvres, extensive permanent platforms will be constructed at Ludgershall and other arrangements made for facilitating the entrainment of troops.  Already he has received an intimation that 3,000 Welsh Volunteers will be taken over the line and the suggested centralisation of the auxiliary forces on Salisbury Plain points to an increase of work.  The success of the recent undertaking should, however, inspire the company with increased confidence for the future, and they are not likely to fall short of the high standard which they have just established.